Ukraine’s president needs to repair ‘damage’ with Europe after the Trump call scandal
Ukraine’s president has found himself to be the unlikely recipient of global media attention following a phone call with President Trump that has set in motion an impeachment inquiry. While attention might rest on the possible consequences of an inquiry on Trump, the episode has also proven embarrassing and potentially damaging for Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky who will now need to repair some bridges with the country’s allies, analysts say.
Zelensky came under international scrutiny following a furore over a phone call with President Trump in July in which the U.S. president appeared to ask Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential Democratic rival in the 2020 presidential race, and his son Hunter Biden who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company. Zelensky repeatedly flatters the U.S. president, telling him that Ukraine will work on the investigation.
Trump denies any wrongdoing and authorized a transcript of the call to be released last week. In the transcript, one that is not a verbatim record, Trump asks Ukraine’s Zelensky to “look into” why the country’s top prosecutor had apparently ended an investigation into the business dealings of Hunter Biden, who served on the board of a Ukrainian gas company.
It’s alleged that Trump pressured Ukraine for information that could help to smear his Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and damage his chances in the 2020 election race. Ahead of the call, Trump ordered a hold on the release of $400 million in military aid to Ukraine although the president has denied any suggestions that the withholding of aid was to pressure Ukraine.
Back home in Ukraine, Zelensky’s performance during the call has divided opinion. For some, his fawning tone with Trump was forgivable as it likely reflected how a lot of national leaders —especially those in a suppliant position like Ukraine’s — talk to Trump. For others, Zelensky displayed his political inexperience, bravado and threw his European allies under the bus for their perceived lack of support over Russia.
“It is clear that Zelensky tried to establish personal relations with Trump as it is so important for Ukraine (because of its need for) military support, and sanctions against Russia. Therefore, he followed Trump’s style and rhetoric,” Olexiy Haran, a professor of Comparative Politics in Kiev and research director at the Democratic Initiatives Foundation, told CNBC Monday.
Haran said that some of Zelensky’s comments were “too much” including his statement that the next Ukrainian prosecutor general would be “100%” his choice, when the he or she should be independent from the president (although the post is appointed by the president with the consent of parliament).
“I think some (of Zelensky’s) phrases could be formulated in a more diplomatic fashion. But it was a confidential talk. (It’s a) very bad precedent that confidential talks between two presidents are made public (by the way without consent of Ukrainian side). No foreign leader now can feel secure talking confidentially to U.S. president,” Haran said.
Smelling of roses
Embarrassingly for Zelensky, the phone call shows him agreeing with Trump’s criticism of European leaders saying that are not helping Ukraine as much as the U.S. Trump singles out German Chancellor Angela Merkel for talking about Ukraine “but she doesn’t do anything.” Zelensky says he agrees with him “1000%” and says he has told Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron that they are not doing as much as they need to be doing when it comes to sanctions on Russia, and says that the U.S. is doing more.
The EU and U.S. both places sanctions on Russia for its annexation of Crimea and its role in a pro-Russian uprising in east Ukraine. French and German leaders Macron and Merkel have tried to broker peace talks between Russia and Ukraine to no avail so far.
Ukraine aspires to membership of the European Union and the EU is its closest ally when it comes to Russia, so appearing to agree with Trump’s criticism of EU leaders won’t go down well in Europe, James Nixey, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at think tank Chatham House, told CNBC.
“Obviously in this whole affair no one has come out of it smelling of roses. Especially not Trump, but also Zelensky too,” Nixey told CNBC Monday. “But he’s young, he’s inexperienced ... He did ingratiate himself too much with Trump during the call but it’s true that Ukraine needs U.S. military and development aid. It’s not a cardinal sin (what Zelensky said) but there is some damage repair to be done especially with European leaders, especially Merkel.”
“He has to work with European partners and he is belittling European allies who he’ll have to see, so he has to do a better job there. I think he can survive it, but it is embarrassing,” Nixey added.
Haran, meanwhile, believed that the EU and especially Merkel, as very experienced politicians, will ultimately understand Zelensky’s behaviour because “a stable Ukraine is in Europe’s and (the) U.S.′ strategic interests. But the script may complicate somehow personal relations between Ukraine’s president and them.”
Timothy Ash, a senior emerging markets strategist at Bluebay Asset Management and close watcher of Ukraine, said last week that Zelensky’s “eagerness to stab the Europeans looks bad - but I guess, many people have disappointed Ukraine since the Euromaydan” (series of pro-European protests in 2014). The U.S. and the EU don’t exactly come out smelling of roses, and in the end, it is Ukrainians who have died on the front-lines defending Europe from Russian aggression,” Ash said.
“We can total up the financial support from the EU and the US, and in my mind its somewhat comparable. Trump seems to think that Ukrainians are fighting to defend Europe - well they are - against Russian aggression, but I think they are also defending Western liberal market democracy, which once upon a time the U.S. used to lead and care about,” he said.
When Trump and Zelensky met in New York last week on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly, Zelensky struck a far more diplomatic tone, stating that “I thank all of the European countries that help us. We also want to have more, more, but I understand so only together, America and EU, only together we can stop the war, and, you know, we are ready.”